MISSION — John Ecken was from a town of about 35 houses — Argyle, Mich. But, these houses could hold big families.
“One family had 18 children. We had 14 and another had 12,” said John, laughing brightly. “There was nothing to do in the wintertime so — ” A modest man, he lets the imagination fill in the last of the sentence.
“My parents owned a gas station and garage, and we all worked there,” he said. “My dad was easygoing and would let people charge, but then my mom would have to scrounge around every month just to get enough to pay the gas man. We were very poor, but I didn’t realize it until about high school.”
His fondest memory of that time was the freedom.
“We could run all over town, even as little kids, because it was a small town,” John said. “Our parents would just let us go, and we would come back for meals.”
“Everybody watched out for each other,” said Marilyn, John’s wife. “Everybody knew all the families. Now, they wouldn’t dare do that.”
His memories of his family are flooded with music. His dad played the violin and his mom played the piano, as did a sister.
“I learned to play by ear, but today I teach by note,” he said. Playing the piano, accordion, guitar, banjo and mandolin, music has followed him all his life.
Going to a country school, John spent his early school years in a two-room schoolhouse. Grades 1st to 4th were together, and 5th through 8th were in the other room. The great thing about that was, if you wanted, you could learn from the other classes, listening in to the other classes when it was their turn at the front of the classroom.
Studying in the seminary at St. Nazianz, Wis., John realized he wished to have a family and went into social work instead. One day he happened to be working at an inner city school in Saginaw, Michigan, and became friends with a young teacher by the name of Marilyn, his soon-to-be wife.
Marilyn was born in Flint, Mich. There were only seven children in her family — five boys and two girls — and they grew up on a farm in Maple Grove, a farming community.
“We lived on a farm and my dad worked at the GM factory in Flint for many years. All my brothers worked there, too,” Marilyn said. “Since there were only two girls, we mostly did the housework and gardening. But when we were younger we had to do the milking by hand until my younger brothers were old enough to milk. It was a dirty job, and my hair would be smelly from the barns.”
One time, when her parents left for the day and put Marilyn in charge, she learned a major lesson:
“I was probably 10 or 12. A couple of my younger brothers and I went up in the hay mow (loft in the barn) to play tag. It was about 20 feet up and across the main part of the barn there were boards that weren’t solid across. I stepped on the end of one and went right through,” she said, seriously. “I remember falling through and landing on the only hay bale on the floor, hitting my side. My parents came home and I was in bed. I told them I didn’t feel good. They didn’t know for 15 to 20 years until all the stories came out of what we did when they were gone from the farm. I was so lucky.”
School days were filled with choir and 4-H — sewing, cooking, canning. They didn’t have freezers yet. When it came time to graduate, she was at the top of her class and college loomed in her future.
“Back in the ‘50s girls were either teachers or nurses,” she said. “There were secretaries, too but you didn’t have to go to college for that.”
Teaching was her choice, and she moved to Saginaw for a job, and there she met a young social worker by the name of John. After a few years of friendship, he finally got the courage to ask her out. That was in November and by the following July they were wed.
They moved to Detroit so that John could attend Wayne State University to earn his Masters in social work. Working his way through school, John became a cab driver for two years, which paid the bills but certainly had its downside.
“I replaced a person who had been shot through the mouth,” he said with a wry grin. “Being a cabby was a good experience. I leaned how different people acted and lived.”
After obtaining his degree, they moved with their growing family to Vassar where John worked at a psychiatric unit in Caro. Their last daughter — four daughters, the middle two twins — was born on April Fool’s day which gave John reason to have a bit of fun at work that day.
While Marilyn raised the children, John continued his work at the unit for six years. Going into social services, he supervised child welfare, protective services, foster care, adoption and delinquency.
“I used to go home with knots in my stomach because you don’t know whether to remove the children. That’s a tough decision to make,” he said, solemnly.
After the last child was in school, Marilyn went back to teaching for the next 20 years. Besides work, their life followed in John’s childhood steps — music.
“I would play an electronic accordion and the girls would all sing,” John said. “We formed a band and played mainly in nursing homes and small anniversary parties.”
Traveling was a way of life in the summertime — camping across the United States. Racking up 5,000 miles one trip, they went from a June snowstorm in Yellowstone Park to 110-degree weather in Las Vegas with no air conditioning. Finally, heading up 500 miles to escape the heat, they camped and then headed back home. Buying a cabin on Lake Huron proved to be the smartest step yet.
“We have a cottage that’s now a big focal point with our kids and grandkids every summer,” said Marilyn.
Retiring in 2000, Marilyn had to wait a year for John to join the fun. Planning to head for Florida to find a place to retire for the winter, one of the men in their town said, “Don’t go to Florida. They don’t like you down there. You’re just a Snowbird. Go to Texas. The people love you down there.” (How true that is!)
On their second visit in 2001, they stayed at El Valle de Sol and have been there ever since.
Throwing themselves into volunteer work, they spent two days per week for five years at the Rio Bravo Children’s Home outside Reynosa. When travel safety to Mexico became an issue, eventually they found their park’s own backyard housed Martinez Elementary.
They became reading tutors at Martinez Elementary. Working with the students, John teaches music and they both teach English as a second language to adults. Through an award and donation they’ve been able to supply the school with keyboards and guitars, and the children are thriving.
When he finds a free moment John and a friend, referred to as migrant workers, pick the residents fruit who give permission, giving for free over 200 bushel baskets to the people going into the Texas Department of Human Services.
Marilyn pairs up with a pal to volunteer at the Texas Oncology Cancer Center.
“Retirement means you do what you like to do,” said John. “To others it might seem like work, but is isn’t. It’s enjoyable stuff.”
A jokester for the weekly entertainment events, it’s John splurge to be extroverted.
“All he has to do is walk up there and people start laughing,” said Marilyn. “It’s simple fun. That’s what goes on down here. Silly stuff you would never think of back home. There, everybody is busy and working. We just have a lot of fun down here.”
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